Yves here. This post on the backstory of how the then British empire rather ineptly dialed up then tried to cool hostilities between Jewish immigrants promised a homeland and the Palestine incumbents is oddly superficial. For instance, it omits one of the original sins, recounted short form in a detailed account of T.E. Lawrence in Smithsonian Magazine:
But Faisal’s [third son and battlefield commander of Emir Hussein, ruler of the Hejaz region of central Arabia] young liaison officer also harbored a guilty secret. From his time in Cairo, Lawrence was aware of the extravagant promises the British government had made to Hussein in order to raise the Arab Revolt: full independence for virtually the entire Arab world. What Lawrence also knew was that just months after cementing that deal with Hussein, Britain had entered into a secret compact with its chief ally in the war, France. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the future independent Arab nation was to be relegated to the wastelands of Arabia, while all the regions of value—Iraq, greater Syria—were to be allocated to the imperial spheres of Britain and France. As Lawrence recruited ever more tribes to the cause of future Arab independence, he became increasingly conscience-stricken by the “dead letter” promises he was making, and finally reached a breaking point. His first act of sedition—and by most any standards, a treasonous one—was to inform Faisal of the existence of Sykes-Picot….
With the war in Europe drawing to a close, he hurried to London to begin lining up support for the Arab cause at the upcoming Paris Peace Conference. Acting as Faisal’s personal agent, he frantically lobbied prime ministers and presidents to uphold the promises made to the Arabs and to prevent a peace imposed along the lines laid out in Sykes-Picot. By that scheme, “Greater” Syria was to be divided into four political entities—Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria—with the British taking the first two, the French the latter. As for Iraq, Britain had planned to annex only the oil-rich southern section, but with more oil discovered in the north, they now wanted the whole thing.
Lawrence sought allies wherever he could find them. Surely the most remarkable was Chaim Weizmann, head of the English Zionist Federation. In January 1919, on the eve of the peace conference, Lawrence had engineered an agreement between Faisal and Weizmann. In return for Zionist support of a Faisal-led Syria, Faisal would support increased Jewish emigration into Palestine, tacitly recognizing a future Jewish state in the region. The pact was soon scuttled by the French.
But the most poignant what-might-have-been involved the Americans. Suspicious of the imperialist schemes of his European partners in Paris, President Woodrow Wilson sent a fact-finding commission to the Middle East. For three months, the King-Crane Commission toured Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and what they heard was unequivocal: The vast majority of every ethnic and religious group wanted independence or, barring that, American administration. Wilson, however, had far more interest in telling other nations how they should behave than in adding to American responsibilities. When the commission returned to Paris with its inconvenient finding, the report was simply locked away in a vault.
Lawrence’s efforts produced a cruel irony. At the same time that he was becoming a matinee idol in Britain, courtesy of a fanciful lecture show of his exploits delivered by American journalist Lowell Thomas, he was increasingly regarded by senior British officials as the enemy within, the malcontent who stood in the way of victorious Britain and France dividing the spoils of war. In the end, the obstreperous lieutenant colonel was effectively barred from the peace conference and prevented any further contact with Faisal. That accomplished, the path to imperial concord—and betrayal—was clear.
The repercussions were swift in coming. Within the year, most all of the Middle East was aflame as the Arab world, enraged at seeing their Ottoman masters replaced by European ones, rebelled. Lawrence was particularly prescient about Iraq. In 1919, he had predicted full-scale revolt against British rule there by March 1920—“If we don’t mend our ways.” The result of the uprising in May 1920 was some 10,000 dead, including 1,000 British soldiers and administrators.
Tasked to clean up the debacle was the new British Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, who turned for help to the man whose warnings had been spurned: T.E. Lawrence. At the Cairo Conference in 1921, Lawrence helped to redress some of the wrongs. In the near future, Faisal, deposed by the French in Syria, would be placed on a new throne in British-controlled Iraq. Out of the British buffer state of Transjordan, the nation of Jordan would be created, with Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, at its head.
Gone forever, though, was the notion of a unified Arab nation. Vanished also was Lawrence’s spirit for the fight, or desire for leadership.
And the Stern Gang, where Jews settling in Israel formed an explicitly terrorist group to turn on their British overlords and Palestinians. From Wikipedia:
It was initially called the National Military Organization in Israel, upon being founded in August 1940, but was renamed Lehi one month later. The group referred to its members as terrorists and admitted to having carried out terrorist attacks.
Lehi split from the Irgun militant group in 1940 in order to continue fighting the British during World War II. It initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis, proposing a Jewish state based on “nationalist and totalitarian principles, and linked to the German Reich by an alliance”. After Stern’s death in 1942, the new leadership of Lehi began to move towards support for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and the ideology of National Bolshevism, which was considered an amalgam of both right and left. Regarding themselves as “revolutionary Socialists”, the new Lehi developed a highly original ideology combining an “almost mystical” belief in Greater Israel with support for the Arab liberation struggle. This sophisticated ideology failed to gain public support and Lehi fared poorly in the first Israeli elections.
In April of 1948, Lehi and the Irgun were jointly responsible for the massacre in Deir Yassin of at least 107 Palestinian Arab villagers, including women and children. Lehi assassinated Lord Moyne, British Minister Resident in the Middle East, and made many other attacks on the British in Palestine. On 29 May 1948, the government of Israel, having inducted its activist members into the Israel Defense Forces, formally disbanded Lehi, though some of its members carried out one more terrorist act, the assassination of Folke Bernadotte some months later, an act condemned by Bernadotte’s replacement as mediator, Ralph Bunche. After the assassination, the new Israeli government declared Lehi a terrorist organization, arresting some 200 members and convicting some of the leaders. Just before the first Israeli elections in January 1949, a general amnesty to Lehi members was granted by the government. In 1980, Israel instituted a military decoration, an “award for activity in the struggle for the establishment of Israel”, the Lehi ribbon. Former Lehi leader Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister of Israel in 1983.
I am sure readers can fill in more important details.
By Saurav Sarkar, a freelance movement writer, editor, and activist living in Long Island, New York. They have also lived in New York City, New Delhi, London, and Washington, D.C. Follow them on Twitter @sauravthewriter and at sauravsarkar.com. Produced by Globetrotter
Israeli flags are flying over all government buildings in the United Kingdom currently, but this isn’t the first time the former imperial hegemon has put its weight behind Zionism. In 1917, the British government issued the infamous Balfour Declaration.
This brief document—67 words—was a turning point in modern Palestinian history. It committed Great Britain to establishing a “national home” for Jewish people in Palestine. (The initial language promised a “Jewish state,” but was changed later.) The Balfour Declaration contained language that was meant to safeguard Palestinians, but we have seen how that has played out in the ensuing century.
From World War I to 1948, the British ruled Palestine, the bulk of that time under a mandate issued by the League of Nations. The population of Jewish settlers in Palestine increased over these decades—particularly the 1930s—as the British government fostered their immigration. In 1922, only 11 percent of the population in the region was Jewish. By 1931, the figure was up to about 17 percent. By 1939, it was almost 30 percent.
At that point, the British government sought to limit any further expansion of the Jewish population in order to ensure stability in the region. But by then, it was too late—the facts on the ground had changed. What had been a region that was almost 90 percent Palestinian had become a contested land between two demographically numerous groups. Moreover, the British had confiscated land from Palestinians to hand it over to Jewish people and engaged in violent repression of incipient Palestinian nationalism. And in the 1930s, a British government commission recommended that Palestine be partitioned, laying the groundwork for the failed “two-state solution.”
In other words, this conflict is the product of specific imperial policies that were practiced in the first half of the 20th century to foster a colonial project. The “Jewish question”—Europe’s longstanding inability to adequately address its own antisemitism—was made into Palestinians’ Zionist problem by the British Empire.
One of the key features of British rule was to play different groups against each other. One of the key methods adopted by them over the course of centuries and a global collection of provinces was to study the social history of their subjects to manage the politics and play different groups against each other.
The support for Jewish migration to Palestine triggered resentment and mobilization by Indigenous Palestinians, eventually leading to the Great Revolt of 1936-1939. The revolt, which included a general strike and peasant uprising, was violently repressed by the British government in collaboration with Zionist paramilitaries. However, after the revolt, the British began to limit further Jewish immigration to the region, turning against the group they had supported in order to protect their imperial interests. This led to violent attacks by Zionists in Palestine.
Palestine is not alone in this fate. In region after region, the British used strategies of “divide and rule” to pit one people against another for the benefit of the empire. In British India, they pushed the Hindu-Muslim divide, sometimes favoring one population, sometimes the other. In Cyprus, they pitted the Greeks against the Turks. In Sri Lanka, it was the Tamils against the Sinhalese. In Ireland, it was the Catholics against the Protestants. The list goes on.
In all of these places, the supposedly “ancient” politics of intergroup conflict have persisted beyond when the sun set on the British Empire. There have been territorial divides based on ethnicity and/or religion. British India became India and Pakistan. Pakistan was then further subdivided into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ireland was split up into the Republic of Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland. Cyprus is divided in two, and its legal status is still unresolved. In Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lanka, a 30-year civil war waged to establish a Tamil state, which ended in 2009 in a similar fashion to what we are witnessing in Gaza today. And in 1948, Palestine was formally partitioned, establishing a Zionist state and what was meant to be a Palestinian one, with the blessing of the former British rulers who oversaw the beginning of the Nakba.
Each of these places has been marked with violent conflict based on “ancient” hatreds that can be traced to the last one or two centuries. It is this commonality that firmly establishes that the British Empire policies are the root cause of the violence in these regions; there are simply too many instances of these conflicts being traced back to the empire to imagine a coincidence.
While the proximate causes of Israeli apartheid, occupation, and genocide clearly lie squarely at the feet of Israel and its chief sponsor the United States, the United Kingdom has a special responsibility to make right its historical sins in Palestine—and everywhere else. A minimal first step would be to work to stop the current genocide instead of waving an Israeli flag. But this—let alone reparations—does not seem to be on the table.